The internal machinations of our minds sometimes betray us. Fantasies spiral out of control, thoughts embarrass us by slipping through their Freudian holes, and in the midst of puzzling equations, they have the unfortunate knack of forgetting to carry the one. Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is one such puzzling equation set in a spiralling fantasy world filled to the brim with haunting mental slips twisted as cultural references coming to life. Following a young woman (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons), Kaufman’s latest is a confronting, often chilling look at life unfulfilled and the ways in which we compensate for that inside.
“It is beautiful out here. In a bleak, heartbroken kind of way.” so thinks the young woman, who for convenience I will call Lucy, the first of her many ever-changing names. Lucy thinks this while gazing out from Jakes car on the way to meet his parents for the first time. The whitewashed landscape outside is rapidly worsening in the snowfall, and despite the frequent chatter with her boyfriend, she cannot escape one perpetual thought, “I’m thinking of ending things”. What she’s thinking of ending precisely is challenging to dissect, but on the surface level, Jake is on the chopping block.
Most of the film takes place like this, isolated in the ever-plodding car and, as if driving some mythically foreboding road, the further they go, the more unsettling things become. Its subtle interactions the couple have that force this sensation. Moments where Jack interrupts Lucy’s thoughts, as if reading her mind, or the few times Lucy’s ever-seeking eyes find the camera and she stares straight through us. Yet these instances are only harbingers of what’s to come, which is a meeting of parents that makes Ben Stiller’s efforts look like a perfectly comfortable and effortless occasion.
Jack’s parents are freaky figures, simply named mother and father (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). They flow through time together while we are with them, aging rapidly both forwards and backwards through time, but they aren’t all that changes. Lucy’s name changes as well, as does her occupation, the way they met, her hobbies and interests. Suddenly it becomes clear that this is not reality as you and I know it. What we are seeing is a blank canvass upon which someone is painting their desires, and as they paint, they are changing their minds about what is ideal to them. Everything becomes infinitely more uncomfortable from this point as we realise how perverted it is that we are being made privy to this individual’s innermost desires. Almost every moment inside Jack’s childhood home only makes this more evocative. When we enter his room, the voluminous mise-en-scene reveals the sources of many of the references, and it’s clear whoever’s fantasy this is it’s made up entirely from the media they have consumed.
We do know whose fantasy Lucy exists in; he isn’t kept secret from us. In fact, throughout the film, we cut to him living his lonely life. Credited only as “Janitor” (Guy Boyd), our de-facto storyteller works in a local high school where he struggles with both his image in the eyes of the students and his empathy for those who are bullied. And through him, I’m Thinking of Ending Things becomes a melancholy tale of unrequited love within oneself. Even in his own fantasy, the Janitor faces rejection, and I can’t think of many things sadder than that.
Sad as it may be, everything does come across masterfully. Kaufman is sincere enough in his writing to simply let his mystery be clear-cut once it is resolved. However, the film’s issues lie in the presence of the conundrum itself. In both direction and content, this is an inaccessible film nearly impossible to fully comprehend in a single viewing, which can make its vast 134-minute runtime drag. It is so easy to get caught up in analysing every passing line as if the next one could be the Rosetta Stone for the entire piece, and doing this won’t uncover much of anything in this movie. The film’s twist lies in the big picture, and the references and the mind-bending are only the manifestations of the Janitor; they are what he is. In saying this, a firmer hand would likely have seen the film crumble before our eyes as a nuance-less mess, so whilst it all gets dangerously close to being pretentious, it remains respectable.
I would be remiss to end this review without mentioning two of the hottest actors in the world right now in Buckley and Plemons. The calibre of work they produce while almost exclusively seated in a car is phenomenal. They are becoming the kind of actors whose names on a cast sheet are all the convincing you will need to watch, and their efforts in digesting and reciting Kaufman’s abstract dialogue is some of the finest work of the year. Thewlis and Collette are also predictably irresistible in their quirky roles, and together they each make for a perfect ensemble.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is unashamedly not for all tastes to worthwhile results. With this said, deciphering what it all means is justifiably difficult and will doubtless see many seek other avenues to spend their time.
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